In Cervical "Selfies," A Solution

Graphic of a Cervical cancer cell
Image credit
iStock photo.

What do candy crush and cervical cancer have in common? Well, nothing except, both can now be ‘screened’ on a smartphone.

The innovation, by Israeli based firm MobileODT, is a compact medical device that comprises a powerful microscope and lighting. It incorporates an android enabled mobile phone that takes a photograph of the cervix. This non-intrusive system enhances visual assessment (EVA) while storing a digital copy, which is relayed to a specialized application that interprets the image and also links up to other specialists for further consultation.

Unlike existing technology, “It never enters the patient, it’s always at a distance” says Ariel Beery, Chief Executive Officer and Cofounder of MobileODT. This feature could serve as a motivation in conservative communities where women shy away from being checked.

The cervix, where cervical cancer starts and then spreads, is the narrow passage that connects the vagina and the uterus. Though deadly, if detected early, cervical cancer can be treated and the patient cured. Discovering the disease at an early stage is crucial for treatment.

In Western nations, taking a pap smear annually is routine in order to detect pre-cancerous cells and begin early treatment. But in sub-Saharan Africa, where the most number of women are affected, very few ever get screened for the disease.

Apart from poor awareness, the existing technology to provide the service is expensive, while other resources like laboratories and trained specialists are limited. However, the portability of the EVA system means affordable reproductive health care services can be brought to women in far-flung communities. Also, women with access to smartphones can remotely send their physicians ‘selfies’ of their own cervixes for analysis.

According to the WHO, cervical cancer is the most widespread form of cancer in the world. Over 90% of the estimated 275,000 annual deaths from the disease occur in developing nations like Kenya and Nigeria where access to reproductive health care is broadly inadequate, gender inequality is high and economic resources are low.

Because culture, religion and poverty often limit the demand for reproductive health care in many developing countries, experts advocate mobile solutions that take health care to at-risk-populations. Though, mobile devices have in the past couple of years been used to track cervical cancer screening, MobileODT takes it a step further by actually improving the screening process itself and potentially saving the lives of many women not only in sub-Saharan Africa but across the world. The device has been rolled out in 8 developing countries including Kenya and Haiti.

Access to qualitative yet affordable reproductive health care lies at the core of gender equality and economic development, says Felicitas Zawaira, Director of Family and Reproductive Health at WHO’s Africa Regional Office. Speaking during the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, Zawaira noted that “money” remained a big impediment to provision and demand for services.

MobileODT believes EVA has successfully bridged this gap between affordability, portability and technological advancement. The device is 10% the size of existing technology and retails for about $1500.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed the price of the device at $800, rather than $1500.

Ameto Akpe is an independent Nigerian journalist. She was the 2013 Persephone Miel fellow and a 2014 Nieman fellow at Harvard university. Her reporting has been published in Financial Times, Boston Review, BusinessDay and Foreign Policy. Before coming to journalism, Akpe spent a year teaching high school geography in a remote village in southeast Nigeria. Her reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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